Year A — The First Sunday after Christmas

Commentary for December 26, 2010

Click here for today’s readings.

Isaiah 63:7-9


Isaiah’s message is all the more pointed when considered in connection with the gospel for this day. After affirming that God has, indeed, acted in the life of God’s people Israel, the prophet takes up the image of children who are cared for in their distress. Making it a point of some pride, he indicates that it is no mere angel or intermediary that cares for God’s children; it is God, the personal presence of God, that comes as “their savior.”


Hold on closely to the ending words of this lesson: “in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” We’ll need those strong, comforting arms to endure Herod’s wrath in the gospel.

Psalm 148

John Calvin wrote, concerning Psalm 148 in his Commentary on Psalms, that “there is no part of the world in which the praises of God are not to be heard, inasmuch as he everywhere gives proof of his power, goodness, and wisdom.” (Read a free online version here.)

That pretty much says it for this psalm — what a reach, from the outer limits of the universe (in v. 6) down to the infinitesimal detail of the flora and fauna of creation– and in every human heart– God is praised!

Rev. James Anderson, who translated the commentary from Calvin’s French, notes that “Milton, in his Paradise Lost, (Lib. 5. line 53, etc.,) has elegantly imitated this Psalm, and put it into the mouth of Adam and Eve as their morning hymn in a state of innocency.”


Hebrews 2:10-18

Hebrews reminds us that Jesus became like his brothers and sisters “in every respect” (v.17) — which included his suffering and death. Further, God has allowed Jesus to do this to bring many “children to glory.” The writer makes explicit the link of “flesh and blood” between Jesus and the children of God; they have shared the experience of death and will thus share in the defeat of death. (v.14)

Because Jesus has suffered, he is able to help those who suffer — now and in all places and times. (v. 18)


Matthew 2:13-23

As preachers, we rarely come to a more difficult text to interpret than “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” In evangelical circles, preachers are fond of invoking the great cost to God of providing salvation through the life of Jesus; though I have rarely heard this passage mentioned, it certainly speaks to the “great cost” of accomplishing this particular redemptive mission.

There is a good deal of question as to the historical veracity of this account, as it is mentioned in no Roman or Jewish records of the time. What is well-documented is the tightly-coiled anger of Herod “the Great” — anger that was released in a number of deadly assaults on (real or imagined) threats to his power.

[For an in-depth examination of the issue of the historical reality of Herod’s slaughter, click here to read an article by Gordon Franz in which he claims, among other things, that Herod has been diagnosed by modern psychologists with Paranoid Personality Disorder!]

 How can we be redemptive with our handling of this text on this first Sunday after Christmas? As Dr. Chilton suggests in the sermon below, one way is to ask us to take a look at what is considered “normal” in our world. Are we so inundated by bad news and slaughter in our world that our hearts are unmoved by the good news of Christ’s coming to change us? And what is our part in redeeming a world that slaughters children every single day by means of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, and lack of adequate health care?

To do nothing, one might deduce, is the same as to live as vindictively as Herod. Hopefully, Christ’s Mass calls us to live differently, counter-culturally…and with what Pastor Robert Schnase calls “extravagant generosity.” (An excellent resource is his book, Five Practices for Fruitful Congregations; read an excerpt here.)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When my son David, who is now 27, was a little-bitty fella, he loved Richard Scarry’s Christmas Book.
It is a book with no words, just pictures. It shows a traditional New England or Midwestern town going through the Advent season: pictures of families decorating the house, baking and eating cookies and pies.
It shows the town workers putting up lights and decorations downtown and Sunday School folk at Christmas play practice and Santa Claus in the Toy section of the Department Store
There is a scene of Candlelight Communion and a Christmas Day multi-generational family dinner and then the opening of gifts around the tree and the blazing fireplace.
Throughout the month of December, David — and later Joseph — would sit on my lap and we would page through this book. The first few times, I told the story; after that the boys took over, narrating and describing the activities on each page
And, as is the way with all children, each night they said exactly the same thing in exactly the same way.
The last page was a two-page panorama showing Christmas trees out by the mail-box to be picked up by the garbage man, people going to work, city workers taking down lights and decorations, etc.
At this point, the boys loved to slam the book shut and shout at the top of their lungs: BACK TO NORMAL!
Christmas Day, 2010 has come and gone. I’m guessing some of us are pretty anxious to start the process of putting out the trash, stowing away the decorations and trying to return our lives to normal.
The question is: has the Birth of Christ, the celebration of Christmas, really changed anything?
Or was it just a brief interlude before we collectively get BACK TO NORMAL!?
When we think about the Gospel lesson for today it’s hard to see where the birth of the baby Jesus has improved anything for anybody.
Mary and Joseph have gone from a happy couple planning a wedding in their village to outcasts whose baby was born in a barn in a strange town.
And now, their life gets even worse; they have become “illegal aliens,” “political refugees,” “strangers in a strange land,” to use the Biblical phrase.
They are hiding from cruel King Herod, who has been changed by the birth of Christ, but not for the better. He has become even more paranoid and bloodthirsty, taking out his anger and his fear on the innocent little children of Bethlehem.
At first glance, it does not appear that the first Christmas has done anything but make matters worse for everyone involved. Where’s the Good News in that?
Again, we must ask: Has the birth of the Christ child changed anything; or are we always and forever BACK TO NORMAL?
This sense that things have not improved is not just in the Bible, in the Gospel reading; it’s in our modern world and on the TV news and the internet. It is halfway around the world and in our own backyard, including the slaughter of the children through violence, sickness, starvation and neglect.
Is this the NORMAL we come back to after the warmth and glow of Christmas?
Did the birth of the Christ change nothing?
Well, we must remember that the birth of Jesus was a beginning, not an end.
For most Americans, the month of December, the time leading up Christmas Day, is “the Christmas season.”
For them, Christmas day is the end to which all preparations have been directed. When Christmas Day came and went, Christmas was over for them.
But for those who pay attention to the tradition of the Church Calendar, this is not so.
The time leading up to Christmas Day is NOT the Christmas Season; it is Advent, a time to prepare for Christ to come to us. On the church Calendar, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and continues until the Epiphany on January 6 — the 12 days of Christmas.
In structuring things this way, the Calendar seeks to teach us all an important spiritual lesson: the birth of the baby Jesus is just the beginning of the work of God in Christ to save us, not the end.
This work of salvation, of rescue, of change, is a gradual work that does not happen suddenly in all of us. Nor does it show itself in all people in the same way and at the same time. The work of God in Christ takes place slowly; it is about Christ changing us and then, through us, changing the world.
I once heard Tony Campolo, sociology professor, pastor and writer, tell a story about one of his students.
In a class on Social problems, Tony required his students to volunteer at a downtown Philadelphia Rescue Mission.
There was a man at that mission whom Campolo called “Joe.” He had once been a homeless drunk, but he had gotten “saved,” and then got sober, got clean and got a job.
Joe also turned out to be a very caring and compassionate man who spent his free time at the Rescue mission, helping others. He did the grunt work: mopping up vomit, scrubbing toilets, feeding people who were too sick to feed themselves. One might say that he was the “Mother Teresa” of that Mission.
One night, Campolo preached the “Sermon before Supper” that homeless people expect at missions. Most of them were enduring it, just waiting until it was over so that they could eat.
But one man responded by coming forward and kneeling down to praying out loud. He cried out to God: “Change my life, make me like Joe, make me like Joe, make me like Joe!”
One of the sociology students was kneeling with the man and whispered in his ear, “Don’t you think it would be better if you prayed: make me like Jesus?”
The man stopped praying and looked at the student and said, “This Jesus– is he like Joe?”
Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and year after year the world returns to its normal pace.
BUT, if indeed the Christ child has been born in us, it is the beginning, not the end. We can never return to normal ever again.
We have received the grace to be like Jesus, to be like Joe, to be like the godly, caring and compassionate person God made each and every one of us to be. We have been changed by God, and we are called by God to go into the world with the love of Christ living in us so that the world can be changed– and so that the world will never be normal again.
Amen and amen.

4 thoughts on “Year A — The First Sunday after Christmas

  1. I was really struck by the idea of Christmas as a beginning, not just of a 12-day season but of something much bigger than that. Works well with the calendar's new year falling around the same time too. Thanks for making me think about this more deeply.

  2. Pingback: Year A: The First Sunday after Christmas Day (December 29, 2013) | The Lectionary Lab

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